Music

Troye Sivan On Writing Music, The Unfair Stigma Of ‘YouTube Celebrity’, And What It’s Like To Grow Up Online

"You can go back and read and watch and comment on the last eight years of my life," says the 21-year-old. "It's all there."

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“They’ve been bashing me over the head for the numbers all day. It’s you against Iron Maiden, we should know by tomorrow.”

I’m on the seventh floor of the Universal Records building in Sydney. Troye Sivan’s team haven’t yet noticed me lying between a small fort of cushions where I’ve just met the twenty-year-old IRL for the first time, after Tweeting at each other for about five years. Six days beforehand, Taylor Swift blessed Sivan with an all caps tweet prasing his new EP Wild as “STUNNING AND AWESOME” — and since then everyone has been, understandably, losing their shit. Standing around us now, his people are  talking album charts. The difference between the top spot and silver medal appears to be a make or break moment for everyone involved.

“We’ve got a few last things to push,” directs his publicist. “HP is throwing a 10% discount code on laptops for anyone buying the EP tomorrow, and you’ve got a full meet-and-greet later tonight. Oh, and JB Hi-Fi were very pleased with the in-store yesterday too. Nice one.”

Sivan smiles and nods calmly; there’s a small amount of panic around him, but he makes it seem like standard practice. He thanks an assistant for lending him a copy of Holding The Man, and asks if someone could send one to his friend, writer and YouTuber Connor Franta. Pens are put to paper and we are shuffled off to a room filled with bowls of lollies, sherbet and coffee.

“It’s [been] crazy. But I’m not touring, so this month we’ve just been in Chicago, London, LA, Perth [his home town], and now it’s Sydney. My parents are here too.”

Vibes. Mood. Feelings.

A photo posted by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

With over two million Twitter followers and almost four million YouTube subscribers, Troye Sivan has captured the kind of audience most TV networks could only dream of. His CV includes playing a young Wolverine in X-Men: Origins, a film franchise called Spud starring alongside John Cleese, and four EPs of original music – the latest, Wild, being the first of a few upcoming smaller releases, which will lead to his first album.

“I’ve always been a musician,” he says confidently, when asked about his many interests. “I’ve been singing since the day I was born. I’ve always been a music lover, and I’ve realised now that I’ve been writing songs all along without realising it. I was constantly writing parts and melodies or little lyrics – it was never a formal thing, but songs were always in my head.”

It was EMI, now part of Universal Music Australia, who took the steps to get Troye to turn those fragments into songs. They officially signed him in late 2013, resulting in his first major release in August last year: the five-song EP, TRXYE.

“Maybe publically, more so than ever, I’m a musician as well as a YouTuber and an actor. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to shun anything else that I’ve ever done — I just have,” he pauses. “Yeah, maybe this is my full time thing now.”

It’s an admission he knows comes with complications. Phrases like “online celebrity” and “Youtube sensation” riddle articles and reviews of his work, written with an air of incredulity that discounts the efforts he — and many other artists who have built an audience online — put into their fan base.

“Those kind of opinions made me angry for like one second – but my natural reaction is to ask, ‘Okay, how will I prove myself? How will I change that?’ As well though, I want to be careful that I’m not trying taking away the label of ’Youtube Sensation’, but instead change what that label means. I embrace it whole-heartedly. I feel like I’m lucky enough to be on the cusp of a new wave of artist who are stemming from new places. As always, it’s about trying to make good content, and good music.”

So far, it seems to be working. Slowly arising from between the headline-grabbing tweets of adoration from Universal label mates Taylor Swift and Sam Smith are strong write-ups from Rolling Stone and Pop Justice. Locally, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bernard Zuel praised his new EP Wild as an “honest album” that “pulls you in close”, awarding it four stars. And this morning it was announced that Wild did in fact beat Iron Maiden, debuting at the #1 spot on the ARIA charts.

“It kind of sucks that I need this validation — but it feels so good to see that kind of review, and read that kind of stuff,” Sivan says. “Sure, you may need to work harder to disprove some judgement that people have made prior — but it feels like I’m doing that, and that’s a really exciting feeling to me.”

We are briefly interrupted with a delivery of another round of coffee, which Troye accepts with an adrenaline-fuelled shiver in his hand.

Besides a desperate need for caffeine and sugar, Troye and I also share the same publicist – and in fact it’s my agent, Heath Johns — brother to Daniel — whose office we’re sitting in for this interview. The first responsibility of any signed pop songwriter is generally to get out of Australia and do a round trip of meetings with studios, record labels and producers, to try and get the ball rolling on a global scale. This is something that took the South African-born artist by surprise.

“I’m so new to all of this, the process of making an album,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily understand that you wrote a hundred songs, got 60 songs or 50 songs [recorded], and then threw away most of them. So it was this really, really taxing experience of going into a random room with a random person I had never met, writing a song that — nine out of ten times — I didn’t care about or didn’t feel like it represented me at all, you know?”

I recall my own experience with a New York producer, who saw me with my ukulele and proclaimed how neat they were when writing music for insurance commercials.

“Exactly,” he says, with a look of utter shame for the industry. “That was like a heartbreaking experience every single time, ‘cause I was like, ‘Well fuck, now that’s going on the album and the album is going to be horrible and I’ve failed.’ Every time I left a session unhappy I felt like it was the end of the world.

“And then I wrote my first song that I was actually proud of, and I was on top of the world.”

He’s talking about ‘Happy Little Pill’.

“I couldn’t wait for every one to hear it,” he says. “That was a high I had never experienced before. So slowly but surely it’s just been about realising how to — or trying to — stay level.

“You know, when you have a bad session it doesn’t mean you’re a bad songwriter, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to write another good song again. Don’t stress yourself out. Chances are the best thing to do in that particular situation is to go out for food, go out for a beer, maybe call of the session and go back tomorrow, because your mindset is so important.”

Suddenly I feel like the junior songwriter in the room. It’s the same feeling I got in 2009 when he sent me our first DM: “I’m not sure i’m in the position to give this advice, but if you have the option on YouTube to change the thumbnail of your video for Stupid… I would recommend changing to one of the close up moments in the video. PPL LIEK FACES… Just thought it might help :)”

I took the hint, and ‘Stupid’ went viral. He was only 15 back then, and had already mastered the game.

As the interview wraps up, I ask if he ever wishes he could delete it all: Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, the lot?

“Hmm. Nnnno,” he says hanging on the ‘nnn’ for a little longer than most of his followers could bare to imagine. “There are definitely things [I’d leave in the past],” he says, perhaps alluding to the time he tried to say “Touch my poodle” in a Khazaktstan accent, or when he agreed to wax his legs for the masses. “The thing about growing up online, though — and I’ve been online since I was twelve — is that everything you are proud of lives forever and so does everything you are not proud of at all. So there’s a lot on there that is horrific,” he laughs.

“But I dunno. I guess the modern way of thinking about it is that it tells a story. You know you can go back and read and watch and comment on the last eight years of my life; it’s all there. I guess all that I can try and do is make sure that I’m growing always as a person and as an artist, and be like, ‘Yep, the past did happen’.

“As long as I’m doing the best now that I’ve ever done I think that that’s all I can ask of myself and all anyone can ask of me.”

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Brendan Maclean is a songwriter at Universal and is currently being fabulous on tour with Marcia Hines, in their camp as tits disco show Velvet. Find him on Twitter @macleanbrendan