One hour prior to our lunch meeting, I observe the popular LA musician Lauv as he returns to the Radio 1 Live Lounge. On the eighth floor of BBC Broadcasting House, he delivers a simple, two-song performance: the first track, his own Love U Like That, which was released in August, is followed by a poignant rendition of Miley Cyrus’s emotional ballad Used to Be Young. Speaking on air about his cover choice, Lauv explains, “The more I sing it, the more it resonates with me lyrically and reflects all the changes in my life.” Later on, as we share a chicken burger and Coke Zero, he eagerly elaborates on his earlier remarks.
He last performed in the Live Lounge two and a half years ago. This was in March 2020, just before the pandemic caused lockdowns around the world. He reflects on those times: “It was crazy, I was young and trying to figure everything out. Looking back, I realize I was lost. So much has changed since then.” Now 29, he looks different with his natural brown curls instead of bleached hair, and wearing a blazer and piercings instead of a pastel sweater. Professionally, 2020 was a successful year for Lauv, with the hit single “I’m So Tired…” released with Troye Sivan. There was a lot of excitement surrounding his second album. However, he admits: “Even though good things were happening, I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing.”
What has been different? “The main thing for me is…” he pauses and takes a breath. “I don’t want to make it sound too serious, but I have come to the realization that I am not completely heterosexual, and I have begun to embrace that in my life.” Immediately, he visibly relaxes. “I’m still figuring out how to define myself. I’m taking my time with that. But I have recognized that this has caused a lot of pain for me for a long time.”
During the summer, he had posted small pieces of information on social media. On TikTok, he wrote “I am gay but I am not gay but I am gay but I am not gay” over a picture of his face. Another post read “When you are dating a girl but also have some attraction towards men.” However, it appears that today he wants to share more. He states, “I have come to the realization that I can express myself more openly and embrace my true identity.” This, he says, brings a sense of validation to his life.
However, before we delve into that, let’s first explore how Lauv, whose real name is Ari Leff, found himself in this position. During his formative years, he resided in Oakland, California. His mother’s occupation involved researching vaccines for HIV and Aids, which resulted in the family relocating to Atlanta and then the outskirts of Philadelphia. “My passion for music blossomed during high school,” he recalls. “I was writing songs, honing my production skills, and even performed in a few bands. One was metal, the other was hardcore. Eventually, 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 registered for courses at NYU with the intention of studying music technology. He also gained experience by working at different studios, such as Jungle City, where famous artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Kendrick Lamar have produced music. While also exploring DJing, he made efforts to break into the music industry. “I wrote songs and attempted to sell them to other musicians. I would even reach out to anyone I could through email in hopes of getting noticed.” In 2015, he shared his song The Other on SoundCloud under the name Lauv.
“I was uncertain about what to name myself,” he explains about his decision, “so I chose something from my mother’s Latvian family.” Lauv is the Latvian word for lion, which translates to Ari in Hebrew. While studying abroad in Prague, he independently released The Other. The song gained popularity through being included on Spotify’s popular playlist, Today’s Top Hits. “Suddenly, major record labels began contacting me,” he recalls, “but I chose not to sign with them.” The offers were simply not appealing enough.
After completing his studies, he relocated to Los Angeles. Initially, his focus was on writing and producing music for other artists, including Charli XCX’s hit song “Boys”. During this time, Lauv took a step back from pursuing his own music career. He explains, “I have struggled with low self-confidence since I was young, always doubting myself. I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve success as a solo artist.” However, in 2017, Lauv surprised listeners with his upbeat electro-pop track “I Like Me Better”, which became a breakthrough hit. The following year, he released his first album, “I Met You When I Was 18”. Despite his success, Lauv still battled with self-doubt and anxiety. When asked how he dealt with the pressure of being in the public eye, he admits, “I was barely holding on. I felt anxious all the time.” He confesses that the pressure of being a public figure was overwhelming and would spend hours agonizing over a single social media post, often ending up in tears.
Things began to spiral out of control. “I drifted apart from my close friends and became isolated, consumed by Lauv. My lawyer had to remind me that I was still Ari.” Looking back, he believes his music suffered as a result. Lauv’s second album, How I’m Feeling (2020), was successful, reaching No 9 in the UK. But in 2022, his third album – All 4 Nothing – failed to make an impact, both critically and commercially. “I think I lost my Lauv-like quality,” he admits. “The first album had imagination and hope, and I do think there’s some of that in my second. But by All 4 Nothing, it became less authentic, to be honest. I was so consumed by my own issues and trying to be cool that I lost touch with my true self.”
The lockdowns and event cancellations caused by Covid only made the isolation worse. “I truly feel like I lost myself,” he admits. “I was drinking more than I should have been.” How severe did it become? “I’m not sure if most people could tell that I had a problem with drinking,” he responds. “Some noticed at times, but for the most part, it went unnoticed, which made it easier for me to continue. It’s only now that I realize how many times I turned to drinking because of a hint of anxiety, at any time of the day. I wasn’t drinking entire bottles or anything like that. It was more about the frequency of my drinking and using other substances, and the underlying reasons: always to escape myself.”
Recently, Leff has been feeling much improved, according to him. He attributes this improvement in part to his decision to stop drinking in July. He now finds joy in more childish activities and has started to come to terms with his sexuality. This has lifted a burden from him, as he has been struggling with his sexual identity for some time. The constant thoughts and worries about being gay were affecting his music, mood, anxiety levels, and self-perception.
“I have reached a point where I finally…” He smiles. “I shared a playful kiss with a male friend and realized how enjoyable it was. It sparked my curiosity to further explore it. Since then, I have stopped feeling ashamed of it, even though I am uncertain of where it may lead me.”
After that moment, his life has felt less heavy. He expresses feeling reinvigorated with creativity, emotions, hope, and openness. He no longer feels trapped or consumed by negative thoughts. He recently wrote and recorded the lead track, Steal the Show, for Disney’s 2023 film Elemental. He plans to release a new album in early 2024, and for the first time in a while, he is excited about completing and sharing it. I ask him if he feels different now on stage and in the studio. He laughs and confirms, saying he feels great and has rediscovered his inspiration. He is filled with excitement and has ideas that are meaningful to him without being dark or depressing. The upcoming album, like his life, is a journey of exploration and experiencing growth towards his own happiness.
Listen to Lauv’s Live Lounge show on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer.