An hour before we meet for lunch, I watch the LA-based pop star Lauv make his return to the Radio 1 Live Lounge. On the eighth floor of BBC Broadcasting House, he performs a stripped-back, two-track set: the first song, one of his own, Love U Like That, released in August, is followed by a heart-wrenching cover of Miley Cyrus’s coming-of-age ballad Used to Be Young. “The more I sing it,” Lauv says of his cover choice on air, “the harder it hits me lyrically about all I’m going through, the transitions in my life.” Later, over a chicken burger and Coke Zero, he is keen to expand on those comments.
It has been two and a half years since his last Live Lounge set. That was March 2020, just days before the pandemic forced global lockdowns. “Those times were crazy,” he says, “I was just a spring chicken trying to figure everything out. Looking back, I was lost. So much has changed since then.” Now 29, he certainly looks different: short, bleached hair switched for his natural brown curls; pastel sweater replaced by a blazer and piercings. Professionally speaking, 2020 was a good year for Lauv, who was still riding high from the success of I’m So Tired … , a globally charting single jointly released with Troye Sivan. Hype surrounded his second album. “There was a lot of great stuff happening, but I had no idea who I was or what I was doing.”
So what has changed? “Well, the big thing for me is … ” he takes a deep breath. “I hate to make it sound so formal. I just realised that I’m not fully straight, and I started to explore that in my life.” Almost immediately, his whole upper body relaxes. “I still don’t know how I classify myself. I’m trying not to rush that. But I realised that’s been a huge point of suffering for me for a long time.”
Over the summer, he had shared snippets on social media. “I’m gay but I’m not gay but I’m gay but I’m not gay,” he wrote on TikTok, over an image of his face. “When ur dating a girl but ur also a lil bit into men,” read another. Today, though, he seems keen to say more. “I’ve finally realised I can let the weight out a little bit and grow into my true self,” he says. “And that feels life-affirming.”
But, first, how Lauv – real name Ari Leff – ended up here. In his early years, he lived in Oakland, California. His mum worked in HIVand Aids vaccine research, which saw the family move first to Atlanta, then to the outskirts of Philadelphia. “My obsession with music grew through high school,” he says. “I was writing songs, learning how to produce, and played in a few bands, too. One was metal, another hardcore. Then I started a project called Somersault Sunday. Not the greatest choice, in retrospect, for someone with a lisp.”
Aged 18, he enrolled at NYU to study music technology, and interned at various studios including Jungle City, where the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar have recorded. He dabbled as a DJ, while trying his best to get a foot in the industry door. “I was writing songs, and trying to pitch them to other artists. I’d cold-email whoever I could to try to get attention.” Then in 2015, he uploaded one, The Other, on to SoundCloud, under the moniker Lauv.
“I wasn’t sure what to call myself,” he says of the choice, “so picked something from my mom’s Latvian side of the family.” Lauv is Latvian for lion, which is what Ari means in Hebrew. He was studying abroad in Prague when he self-released The Other. Playlisting helped the single blow up, finding its way on to Spotify’s influential Today’s Top Hits. “Major record labels started to reach out,” he says, “literally overnight. I didn’t sign.” The deals were just not enticing.
After graduation, he relocated to LA. At first, he focused on writing and producing songs for other artists, Charli XCX’s banger Boys among them. Lauv took a backseat. “I’ve had incredibly low self-confidence from a young age,” he says, “always down on myself. “So I told myself I didn’t deserve to make it as a solo artist.In 2017, Lauv released the uptempo electropop breakthrough I Like Me Better. The following year, he dropped his first album, I Met You When I Was 18. But, still riddled with self-doubt, how did he cope with that exposure and pressure? “It’s an understatement to say I was just holding on by a thread. Anxious all the time,” he replies. He says he was so unsure of himself, the pressure of being a public persona was paralysing. “I would spend a whole day poring over a single social media post, to the point that I’d be in tears.”
Things stated to spiral. “I lost touch with close friends. I became insular, obsessed with Lauv. My attorney used to have to remind me I was still actually Ari.” On reflection, he reckons the music took a hit. Lauv’s second album, How I’m Feeling (2020), proved successful, peaking at No 9 in the UK. But in 2022, he dropped his third – All 4 Nothing – which failed to make a mark, either critically or commercially. “I think I lost my Lauv-y-ness,” he says. “The first had imagination and hope. And I do feel there’s some of that in my second. I don’t want to disrespect my own work, but it became less pure, in all honesty. By All 4 Nothing, I was so deep in my own problems and trying to be cool, that I lost touch with who I was.”
Lockdowns and the cancelling of live dates during Covid only compounded the isolation. “I fully feel like I lost myself,” he says, . I was drinking more than I should have been.” How bad did it get? “I’m not sure most people would have known I had a drinking problem,” he replies. “Some did, at points. Most didn’t, which made it easier to continue. Only now can I see just how many fucking times I would drink just because I had a twinge of anxiety, at any point in the day. I wasn’t putting down whole bottles or whatever. It was more the times I was drinking, and using other substances, and the reasons behind it: always to escape myself.”
The past few months, Leff is quick to add, he has been feeling much better. In part, he thinks, that’s down to going sober in July. “The type of fun I love now is more childish,” he says. “And, also, while I’m not ready yet to classify where I sit on the spectrum, I know I have been battling with my sexuality.” Since starting to explore this part of himself, a weight has been lifted. “I was facing non-stop clues, paranoias, thoughts, time after time, that led to a voice in my head telling me on repeat, non-stop: Ari, you’re gay. Ari, you’re gay. Ari, you’re gay. It was affecting my music, my happiness, my anxiety, my sense of self. It was all tied together.
“I finally got to a point … ” He’s smiling now. “I had a single playful kiss with a guy friend of mine, and was like: oh, that felt really fun. I wanted to explore it. From that moment forward, I’ve not looked at it as something to be ashamed of, even if I don’t know where it takes me yet.”
Ever since then, his world has felt lighter. “I feel creatively inspired again, emotional, hopeful, open. I don’t feel doomed, or stuck in my head all the time.” He wrote and recorded the lead track, Steal the Show, on Disney’s 2023 film Elemental. There’s a new album on the way in early 2024. For the first time in a long while, he says he’s excited about finishing and releasing it. On stage and in the studio, I ask, does he now feel different? He starts laughing. “Yeah. I just feel good, you know? Like I have my muse again. I have excitement. Ideas that are real to me still, but aren’t dark and depressing. The new album, like my life, is about exploring and experiencing; me growing into my own happiness.”
Listen to Lauv’s Live Lounge show on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer.