Troye Sivan looks young. even for the tender age of 20, his good looks remain boyish, his movements delicate and birdlike, his attire no different to any other kid his age. When we first meet in August, 2015, at a Newtown pub, we almost check that he has ID on him in case he’s carded. This is important because Sivan’s age comes up a lot when people talk about him. Not just because his achievements to date are mind boggling, but because his methods and his mindset are so thoroughly modern that even to understand exactly what he has achieved requires a knowledge of youth culture that most Gen X or Baby Boomers have no idea about. 60 Minutes‘ recent profile on Sivan spent most of its air-time trying to deliver a crash course on YouTube “vlogging”, which, up until recently, was what Sivan was best known for. Thanks to his confessional “vlogging”, we get daily updates on Sivan’s life, loves and loathes, making him a household name among his millions of YouTube subscribers. From his Perth home, Sivan, along with his famous vlogging mates like Tyler Oakley, has become something akin to a millennial’s Oprah, delivering laughs, wisdom and hard truths with workmanlike regularity since 2007.
After coming out to his parents in 2010, the next people Sivan spoke to about his sexuality were his three million-plus subscribers on YouTube. For many millennials, Sivan has been a constant for a large portion of their lives, inspiring them to be their own version of themselves. But for most of us, the Troye Sivan story began with the release of his first major label EP (but third overall) in August 2014, TRXYE.
No matter how you’ve come to know Troye Sivan, it’s ultimately going to be his music that you’ll remember him for. And if you’re a fan, you’re in good company. He counts among his celebrity admirers Taylor Swift (on Twitter, Swift called his music “stunning and awesome”), Sam Smith (“His voice does things to my body”) and One Direction’s Harry Styles. It’s this rabid fanbase, along with the success of Sivan’s theme-song for teen drama The Fault In Our Stars, that fuelled the sales of TRXYE. The online buzz prior to the release created an unprecedented number of pre-orders for the EP, and cemented Sivan as a person of interest for those watching out for new ways to market music in the digital age. Adding fuel to the fire, Time magazine listed Sivan in their “25 Most Influential Teens of 2014”. Amazingly though, after spending some time with Sivan over the course of six months, all of these achievements seem to be nothing more than just tentative first steps for the impressive youngster.
At our first meeting with Sivan over a chicken schnitzel and chips in a Newtown beer-garden, all of this success was academic. Nobody knew if the breakthrough success of TRXYE and last September’s follow up, the Wild EP (Number 1 on iTunes in 66 territories), would translate into LP sales, or whether Sivan’s fans would even care about a full-length album. The singer was pragmatic, preferring to ignore the expectations of his many-pronged management team, A&R and record label. Instead he seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of how the industry worked, how his release differed from other releases, how Rolling Stone worked, how the pub we were eating at handled trans-gender-targeted violence. Sivan was, and still is, learning as much as he can about the business; he’s a sponge, a work-in-progress. But nobody can accuse him of being naïve.
On December 4th, his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, was released, charting in the Top 10 in America, Australia and New Zealand. It’s an edgy and sophisticated effort, the result of collaborations with a range of songwriters, from up-and-comers like Alex Hope to fun.’s Jack Antonoff and Claire Boucher, AKA Grimes. Hope is one of Sivan’s closest friends. “She’s so unassuming, she’s the best,” he offers. “I don’t think we ever say this to each other because it would be too awkward to acknowledge, but we’ve genuinely both been on the most insane journey together.”
The album was accompanied by a trilogy of videos for “Wild”, “Fools” and “Talk Me Down”, a time-spanning love story about Sivan and an imagined childhood friend that ends in tragedy. It was a potentially controversial move, with its depictions of Sivan and his gay lover romping on a bed, and the confronting themes of homophobia and suicide. Once again, though, Sivan got it right. There’s been zero backlash from his fans – they love it, and the only people who have any problem with it are the middle-aged pundits who mistakenly predicted it would ruffle feathers. “I hope it brings some people some comfort to see a gay relationship represented in a music video,” Sivan says with a shrug. “It would have felt pretty strange if I’d filmed scenes with me making out with a girl.”
As Sivan well knows, Australia in 2016 is a very different place. For he and his fans, music is delivered and consumed in a new way, with new rules. In a way, because Sivan is already successful outside of his musical career, he’s perfectly placed to push the boundaries and test the outdated rules developed over decades by record companies. “I think technology is going to result in the industry becoming more democratised,” he says. “I think it makes things better.”
Troye Sivan Mellet was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his family moved to Perth when he was two-years-old. He’s one of four kids (his siblings are Steele, Tyde and Sage) born to his mother, Laurelle, and his father, Shaun, a jovial, loving, textbook parent who works in real estate. Sivan describes his parents as “not that arty, but they are very supportive of art”. He says he always had memories of them exposing him to music, both good and bad. “My mum was always that embarrassing mum that had music really, really loud in the car. Driving up to school I always wanted to die. My dad, his favourite thing was buying concert DVDs. We had everything from a Justin Timberlake concert to a Led Zeppelin concert on DVD and he would put it on really, really loud.”
Sivan says his ambitions kicked in early after his parents encouraged him. “My parents had this thing of never saying no to an opportunity. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing to teach your kids but it rubbed off on me. Now management have taught me that being successful is saying no to a lot of shit and saying yes to the right things.” He smirks. “When I was a kid I would sing anywhere that would have me.” Needless to say, these days those opportunities have multiplied exponentially.
“I hope it brings some people some comfort to see a gay relationship represented in a music video,” says Sivan.
Sivan’s musical beginnings were humble, singing at corporate and community events until he fatefully dipped his toe into the relatively new world of YouTube vlogging in 2007. He began uploading videos of his performances (including three from the Channel 7 Perth Telethon – one a duet with Guy Sebastian) and short comedic skits mostly based on his observations of people’s behaviour on social media. His early cover versions of songs like Declan Galbraith’s “Tell Me Why” (his first ever YouTube post, aged six) racked up 2 million views and fuelled his addiction to sitting in front of a web-cam. These days Sivan still has a strong connection with his YouTube fan-base, but he’s adamant that he won’t let it stop him from moving forward with his music career. “They worry if I don’t post something regularly and start coming up with all sorts of reasons why I’m not posting,” he explains. “They’re like, ‘Oh no! Troye’s sick!’ When I’m away on tour I’ll have to pre-record some things so I can keep them from worrying.”
It’s this connection to his young fans that fuels the only uncertainty that we see from Sivan. In November, during a visit to New York to catch up with the singer, we see one of his first ever live shows. Over breakfast the next morning he acknowledges that there’s a certain disconnect in playing adult, sophisticated electronic pop for the screaming tweens that will no doubt never be discouraged from turning up at his shows. “There were moments last night where I was running along the front of the stage slapping hands with the kids in the front row and it felt a little bit like a Bieber concert,” he chuckles.
On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on December 8th, 2015 (left) and with John Cleese in Spud (right).
Sivan’s music is altogether more sophisticated than the output of many of his pop peers. It’s more akin to the music of, say, Flume or Flight Facilities than Ed Sheeran or One Direction, and here lies the conundrum. How do you create a live experience that appeals to both swooning kids and discerning clubbers? Sivan seems stuck for an answer.
“It sounds cheesy but when I look out and I see the kids dancing and having fun, for a lot of the kids it’s their first-ever show. I get a lot of messages after the gig saying this is the first ever show that I’ve been to.” He smiles at the thought. “I wouldn’t want to take that from them. I was so sick [before his New York show, Sivan was struck down with laryngitis, eventually leading to the postponement of his Sydney and Perth album launch gigs], but when I was thinking about cancelling the show I went down to the venue to talk to the kids who had been lining up all day, just to apologise to them and to explain in person. I started hearing their stories of how far they’d travelled to see me, and how much they were looking forward to the show and I just thought, ‘I have to do this. I can’t back out now.'” Sivan gingerly swallows his herbal tea, no doubt running through the busy schedule of upcoming shows in his mind. “That being said though, it’d be interesting to do an over-18s only show at a gay club or something just to see how it differs.”
When asked if he can identify what separates his music from that of his peers, Sivan is more aware than you’d imagine, with a definite musical direction in mind. “I’ve always liked understated choruses and stuff like that. I didn’t want to hit people over the head with a soaring pop chorus. I’ve always loved albums like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. I can still listen to that now and hear something new every single time, even if it’s just in the mix. Sometimes I listen on headphones and just hear something and go, ‘Oh shit, I’ve never heard that before.'”
The New York gig is the last in a short run of dates that are a debut of sorts for Sivan. It’s only his fifth show with his live band, and the novelty of an artist topping the charts before he’s even played live isn’t lost on him. “It’s pretty crazy when I think that record companies used to go and watch people 30 times before they’d even sign them,” he considers. “My A&R guy Mark [Holland] saw me play live two weeks ago after two years of working together.”
That show was in L.A. at a small venue called Mint, where Sivan performed under a fake name, Vain Oyster. “It’s an anagram of my name. We got T-shirts made that said ‘Vain Oyster World Tour’, and on the back it just had the one date. Never to be reunited ever again! The band broke up that night it was just such a good show!” He laughs. “That was scary as shit. I was so nervous. The show itself was amazing, it was such a whirlwind and so much more than I expected. It probably sounded like shit but I ran off with the biggest smile on my face just knowing that I was gonna be sweet and that it was fun, and that I actually enjoyed it. I felt natural up there. It feels good. It feels like I’m doing something important.”
The Mellet clan (from left): Shaun, Troye, Sage, Laurelle, Steele and Tyde.
At the New York show, we see first-hand the connection that Sivan has with his audience. We descend the stairs at (Le) Poisson Rouge in the East Village as Sivan takes the stage to a deafening roar from the sold-out crowd of 700 or so. It’s a mixed bag – older couples, young kids, industry types and media. On a VIP riser at the back of the room, some fellow YouTube vloggers hang with Sivan’s DJ brother Tyde, while a throng of teens split their attention between ogling them and what’s happening onstage (Sivan’s family is almost as famous as he is). At one point, when Sivan mentions that his father is at the show, Shaun jumps on stage and begins to chat to the crowd before his son politely ejects him and continues with the performance. It’s clear there’s no invisible barrier between Sivan and his fans. “It felt so special in the room,” he says the next morning. “These are people that I’ve been building a relationship with for so long. They’ve had the music for so long without seeing me play live and it felt like we were all stepping out into this together.” Surprisingly, some of the crowd seemed to know songs that still hadn’t been released at the time of the show, something that Sivan puts down to the information that bounces between his numerous social media accounts and his millions of subscribers.
When Sivan leaves the stage just shy of an hour later, it feels like half as long, and as the venue clears out, a core group of young fans mill about around the side stage door hoping for another glimpse of their hero. Happy to take the pressure off Sivan, his father and brother chat to the kids, signing autographs for them while the exhausted singer pops antibiotics backstage. It feels like the sort of scene better suited to a sport stadium, not a dingy subterranean East Village club, but as with every challenge that Sivan takes on, it seems designed to fill in the gaps in his self-education. Write a chart-topping EP – check. Follow it up with an album – check. Form a band and go on tour – check. It’s entirely possible that 2016’s checklist will consist of things like selling-out Madison Square Garden followed by Wembley Stadium.
It’s unclear how much this ambition is fuelled by his schooldays. Sivan says he had a storybook home-life, but that at school he felt distanced from a lot of his classmates. “I’m still intimidated by boys my age,” he says. “I never played sport at all and I think that’s a mistake because I’ve just never had those bonds that the other boys had when they were playing footy. I’d be chilling with the girls or my slightly more feminine, softer guy friends and so I just never really made that connection.” When asked if he was picked on at school he pauses before nodding. “A little bit. I hope he never reads this but I got a message a week ago from the main person who gave me shit in high school, apologising to me. It felt like a movie – that doesn’t happen in real life. It was this long message saying that he was apologising for everything he did in high school. When I think back to that stuff, it’s such a blur. I don’t even know if it actually happened or not, so it was kind of nice to have it validated that it actually happened.”
Sivan says that people from his school days have shown an interest in him since he became famous. “Definitely people have come out of the woodwork a little bit, but I’ve only really had about four friends that I am really, really close with. In Perth I feel like I get a little bit of social anxiety. I probably do better with adults than I do with people my age. Not because I feel like I’m older or better than them or anything like that, I just get nervous. Sometimes I feel like I don’t necessarily understand them and I don’t necessarily feel like they understand me – I mean boys my age. Just because we have such different interests.” When pressed for what those differences are Sivan shrugs. “They’ve all been hooking up with girls since they were 13 and I didn’t have any of that [sexual] experience until I was 18. There was a huge delay with all of that for me.”
“I got a message a week ago from the main person who gave me shit in high school, apologising to me,” says Sivan.
It does seem like Sivan’s ambitions have cost him some of the experiences that a lot of kids take for granted. Before his musical career really kicked off he was starring in feature films. But Sivan says that he got his first snatches of childhood camaraderie while he was acting in the South African film series, Spud (Sivan has also played a young Wolverine in X-Men Origins: Wolverine). “Some of my best memories are doing those Spud films because there were eight boys, a sort of ensemble cast, and we all became like best friends. That’s why I had so much fun filming. That waiting-around-time was spent with friends, it was awesome. It started when I was 14 and I probably shot the last one when I was 16.” He says with regret, “We couldn’t do the fourth one now. It’s too late, all the boys are too grown-up.” There’s something telling about how he doesn’t seem to count himself as being equally grown up – that in some ways he sees himself as a boy interrupted by his own ambition.
When asked whether he feels that his parents understand the online world he has built around himself he says, “I do think they understand now, but when I first started I’m not sure they understood what was going on online. A lot of that was just me telling them, ‘Oh guys I just hit 1 million subscribers’ or whatever, but now they’re super switched-on. They are on Twitter – my mum uses it to keep track of where I am. She follows me on social media. She likes that.”
Sivan’s mum Laurelle was in the U.S. for Sivan’s first few shows, and would happily be there for all of them, but he can’t imagine her becoming a permanent fixture on tour. She seems to be more involved with his acting career, regularly accompanying Sivan to auditions. His father, on the other hand, seems like he’s got a taste for the rock & roll lifestyle. “I think he was a bit drunk last night,” chuckles Sivan after the New York show. “I think he’s getting an appreciation for what I do now that he gets to see it firsthand. I feel like at every stage of my YouTube career I’ve been like, ‘Fuck yeah! I’m doing awesome!’ But that’s just me talking. This is something that they can understand and experience for themselves.”
Sivan’s extended family are living vicariously through his experiences. He says that celebrity spotting is high on the list of conversation topics. “Some things that I’ll do, my family and friends back home don’t really understand that it’s a big deal. I’ll say, ‘I’m Number Five on Billboard’ and they say, ‘Oh cool.’ But when you tell them you’ve just seen someone famous in L.A., they freak out. They lose their minds. If I was to see Kim Kardashian in L.A. that would be all my friends would talk about for months.”
Are you ever excited to meet celebrities?
“I guess it is pretty cool. One time I went to dinner and I saw Harry Styles, Adele and Jennifer Lawrence all in one restaurant. It was nuts. I’ve seen Harry Styles about five times. I think if he was to recognise me, he would 100 per cent think I was stalking him. But I just keep seeing him around. I saw him in Chicago, and in L.A.” [Later, Styles will tweet his love for Sivan’s Wild EP.] As exciting as rubbing shoulders with celebrities is, Sivan says he doesn’t get carried away by the cult of celebrity. “I try not to get starstruck. I try to handle myself normally socially. The craziest night was on this most recent Grammy night. I was in the U.S. and Sam Smith and I are sort of mates. So I was just tagging along with him and Capital Records on Grammy night when he won, and so we just hopped from party to party and it was like everyone was there. I was this close to Rihanna and Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. Everyone who’s anyone was there. Katy Perry was there. It was so weird, it made me realise how I didn’t panic at all around these people. I never go up and ask for photos or anything like that. It just made me realise that even when you get to the top it feels exactly like the middle or the bottom but it’s just on a bigger scale. When you’re there, you realise that Taylor Swift and Katy Perry know each other the same way that I would know Tkay Maidza – it’s just at a different level.”
Did he thank Swift for tweeting about his music? “That hadn’t happened until after that night. I didn’t want to go up to Taylor Swift even though I was freaking out that she was there. And I was thinking hopefully one day I’ll have a reason to go up and say hello. Hopefully now if I see her again I can go up and say thank you for tweeting about me.”
Sivan did, however, get to attend Swift’s Grammy party, but it didn’t quite live up to his expectations. “No one was dancing. No one was drinking. No cocaine, no strippers – nothing like that. It was not what I expected at all. It was just so interesting. Katy Perry was barefoot. I saw Sia that night. It was just too much. I don’t know how people knew which parties to go to, but I went to three different parties and all of them were that crazy. It just felt like school. I just felt like I was at the cool kids’ party for that night.”
It may feel as if Sivan is cautiously making up for the time he spent at school feeling like he was an outsider by carving a niche for himself in the much bigger, more visible world of pop culture, but his feet seem firmly planted on the ground, and he’s able to retreat to Perth whenever things get too much. “I just got a record player a couple of weeks ago,” he offers. “Everything’s been so cool and amazing but the thing that I’m missing the most right now is that. I bought a record the other day and haven’t been able to listen to it yet. And now it’s going to be eight weeks before I can. I want a pet and I want a car.” Sivan pauses, perhaps wondering if he’s coming across like a brat. “Those are things that I can’t have at the moment, but that’s not the worst problem in the world to have.”
From issue #771, available now.