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Chartbreaker: Pop Singer-Songwriter Lauv on Writing ‘Beautifully Tragic’ Pop Music

The pop singer steps from behind the curtain on solo hit "I Like Me Better."

Ari Leff, a San Francisco-born artist who records as Lauv, started writing break-up songs before he even knew what a break-up was. “The first song I can remember [writing at age 13] was called ‘Parting Ways,'” the singer explains. “But I had never been in a relationship, so I don’t really know how that works. For whatever reason, I’ve always gravitated towards music that feels nostalgic or longing or beautifully tragic.”

That tendency is paying off. In 2017, Lauv, 24, co-wrote Demi Lovato and Cheat Codes‘ head-over-heels “No Promises,” which reached No. 7 on the Pop Songs chart. His own rising hit “I Like Me Better,” off his 2017 EP, LAUV, reached a new height of No. 21 on the Pop Songs chart (dated Feb. 24), and as the vocalist on DJ Snake’s “A Different Way,” Lauv reached No. 11 on the Hot Dance/Electronic songs chart.

He’s a quadruple threat — singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer — which helps position him to succeed in the modern musical landscape, where EDM masquerades as breezy guitar pop, inter-genre collaborations are commonplace, and being able to launch songs onto multiple streaming playlists is an important part of gaining exposure.


Long before he was amassing followers on Spotify, Lauv would self-book modest tours for his high-school band using Myspace. (Myspace is also how he connected with Cheat Codes’ Trevor Dahl.) “We’d go back after school, either to my spot or my friend’s spot, and email as many venues as we could trying to book our tour for the summer,” Lauv remembers. “Then summer rolls around, and we’d be like, ‘OK, we’ve booked five shows and they’re all over the country, so now we have to figure out how we’re going to get from this city to that city and not be totally broke.’ We would play to five people in some random town in Tennessee and do that over and over. Those were wack years, but they were fun.”

When he moved from Wayne, Pennsylvania to Manhattan to attend NYU in 2012, he switched his focus to songwriting for hire, and learning how to work in a studio. “I was like, I need to take a step back and figure out if this is going to be a realistic career path,” Lauv explains, and working behind the scenes seemed like a more secure gig.

But in 2015, he changed his mind, recording a heartbroken ballad he wrote called “The Other,” simply because he liked it too much to sell it to someone else. “It was my first song where I felt like I couldn’t give it away,” he says.  The track became popular on the blog aggregator Hype Machine. “All of a sudden, instead of me having to reach out to all these labels and publishers, they were reaching out to me,” he remembers. Lauv signed with Prescription Songs before his senior year of college.

LAUV, 2018
LAUV photographed on Jan. 24, 2018 at Gibson in San Francisco. Gabriela Hasbun

Now, just two years out of school, he has more than half a billion streams on Spotify. He identifies the Cheat Codes’ record as “my first big thing,” but he’s quickly flooded the market, releasing a slew of his own singles along with co-writing Cash Cash’s “All My Love,” Jack & Jack’s “Beg” and Charli XCX’s “Boys.” The vocals on these records tend to capture the “longing” Lauv has always favored, while the production is springy, modern and electronic. “My favorite thing is if I make something that sounds classic and beautiful at its core, [with] production [that makes you go], ‘Oh, I haven’t quite heard that before,'” he says. “If I can accomplish both those things in the same song, it’s a great feeling.”

He nailed that formula with “I Like Me Better,” which has earned 127.5 million on-demand streams in the United States (according to Nielsen Music) and came together in a whirlwind songwriting session in L.A., where Lauv now lives. “That was probably the fastest song that I’ve written ever,” he says. “Every sound I chose when I was making the beat, I was like, ‘Woah, I didn’t expect that.’ It felt like a crazy discovery process, and once I was done, at first I was like, ‘This is so easy, is it possible it’s actually done? Does it need way more work?’” The single revolves around the hook, “I like me better when I’m with you,” merging the self-empowerment anthem and the lovelorn confession with great success.

Lauv thinks “I Like Me Better” — which has now also reached the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to No. 90 in its second week — has been a hit in part because it’s an antidote to some of the more jaded, romance-averse pop songs that have become successful in recent years. That’s good news for him as he works towards an official debut album. “I see a lot of people who want to pretend, ‘Fuck feelings, I’m really fucking cool,'” he says. “But at the end of the day, we all want to fall in love.”


This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of Billboard.