Feb. 6, 2019 was a day Lauv will never forget. Just after delivering a playful performance of “I’m So Tired” alongside fellow pop singer-songwriter Troye Sivan on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he hit a breaking point.
“I remember getting off stage and being like, ‘I’m f–king quitting, I’m done,’” Lauv recalls. “I felt so uncomfortable, I felt so in my head. I was so depressed and so anxious, I was like, ‘I literally don’t want to do this anymore.’”
By that point, Lauv (born Ari Leff) had been performing on stages like Kimmel for nearly two years, since his infectiously adorable breakout hit “I Like Me Better” (which now has 668.5 million on-demand streams in the U.S. through March 5, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data) took off in 2017. He’d spent almost all of that time on the road, opening for Ed Sheeran in Asia and part of the U.S., and headlining his own world tour. He’d released a 17-song project, I Met You When I Was 18, the previous May, and was prepping his debut album. That set, How I’m Feeling, only just arrived on March 6.
Though teaming up with Sivan meant a lot to Lauv, he had lost his love for making music, mostly due to the crippling anxiety he’d experience every time he went into the studio. Now, he has 21 songs to show for his progress. How I’m Feeling not only lyrically documents his journey to being happy and healthy again, but also displays the creativity that process unleashed: There’s bass-heavy tracks like “Billy,” and even a Latin-flavored collaboration with Sofia Reyes, “El Tejano” — both songs Lauv asserts “never would’ve been on my last project.”
One of the most poignant lyrics on How I’m Feeling comes from a song called “Changes”: “I think I’m gonna take some pills to fix my brain/ ‘Cause I tried every other way/ But some things you can’t fix yourself.” After the Kimmel performance, Lauv took friends’ advice and visited a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with clinical depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. He started on a medication that first made him so happy, he began making impulsive decisions, like buying a dog and getting inked with a girl he’d just begun dating (the inspiration for How I’m Feeling track “Tattoos Together”).
Lauv’s friends expressed their concern over his sudden high, but he ignored it, and eventually came crashing down. He later chronicled the experience in a yearning track called “Sad Forever”: “I don’t want to be sad forever/ I don’t want to go one more day/ I just want to wake up and realize/ Everything’s going to be okay,” Lauv sings in the chorus.
He gradually found a balance by trying different medication, incorporating meditation and gratitude practices as well. Along the way, Lauv also found solace in Sivan. “I remember having multiple conversations about how burnt out I felt, and how stressed and sad I was,” he says. “One night after we hung out, he texted me, ‘Dude, you’re such an amazing person, you have to realize that this has to be what you want. Don’t force anything.’ He just really impacted me — he had a lot of light to him.”
Before “I’m So Tired” even came along, Lauv had written the song that would ultimately change his whole perspective. “Drugs and the Internet” was first started in early summer 2018, but Lauv was so stressed about making the vulnerable song perfect that it was put on hold. Though “I Like Me Better” put him on the pop music map, its success was also a big part of his downward spiral. “I became addicted to this idea that if I could reach this certain goal, I would be happier,” he says. “It wasn’t true — I was just forcing myself to be in a box.”
A big turning point came when Lauv’s best friend and frequent collaborator Michael Pollack (who most recently scored a co-write on Maroon 5’s “Memories”) sent the incomplete “Drugs & the Internet” demo to Jon Bellion early last year. The “All Time Low” singer immediately asked to help with the track, and upon Lauv returning to it, the song was finished in no time. The almost effortless creation flashed Lauv back to writing “I Like Me Better,” when he was, as he puts it, “just f—ing around.”
Though the songs are essentially complete opposites — “Drugs & the Internet” is a self-deprecating realization of having priorities wrong, with a thumping chorus that’s bookended by pained piano verses; “I Like Me Better” is an adorable tale of young love with lighthearted vocals and a bouncy melody — it reconnected Lauv with his organic process. And soon, the How I’m Feeling chapter began.
Along with unlocking his songwriting freedom, Lauv broke out of his “box” by identifying six different aspects of his personality: existential Lauv, hopeless romantic Lauv, goofy Lauv, positive Lauv, f–kboy Lauv, and spicy Lauv — all of whom are presented on the How I’m Feeling cover with the singer dressed in different colors, which he refers to as his one-man “boy band.” It’s an approach that’s both introspective and rebellious against the pop stardom machine, carving Lauv a multidimensional (and unconventional) lane after the happy-go-lucky “I Like Me Better” had established a very one-way path.
“I felt trapped in this idea that I was this hopeless romantic,” Lauv admits. “Which is a big part of me, but I felt like I couldn’t reveal the weird sides of me. In the industry, everybody wants you to have a thing, and to be this one thing — which is exactly what I’m not about for How I’m Feeling. F–k having this ‘thing.’”
At an iHeartRadio album release party in New York City three days after How I’m Feeling dropped, Lauv carried the same cheery, appreciative demeanor as when we had sat down for our interview a month prior. But even with the project off his chest and out in the world, Lauv admitted that he had anxiety about how the show would go, noting that it was his first time performing some of the How I’m Feeling tracks. “I gotta be honest, I was kind of having a weird day earlier,” he confessed.
Despite only singing nine of the album’s 21 songs, all six sides of Lauv made an appearance (particularly when he performed “Changes,” “El Tejano,” “Mean It” and “Tattoos Together” all in a row); his range of emotion during the hour-long event made it clear that this chapter of Lauv is just as much about mental health as it is about the human experience. Even on his off days, Lauv is comfortable sharing exactly how he’s feeling, making him an important part of the pop landscape, and making fans especially grateful that he never quit.
The person who’s the most glad he never gave up? Lauv himself. “Being in the studio and being on stage, it’s really two of the greatest things in the world,” he told the crowd. “It feels so f–king good.”