If it feels like you’re just barely keeping it together, you’re not alone.
With so many people cut off from their usual routines, jobs and physical support networks, stress is an understandable and natural consequence.
In the before-quarantine time, Lauv, a musician and independent producer who has talked openly about his experiences with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, found a path to stability through therapy, medication and meditation. Now, as people around the world deal with isolation and other challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, he thinks it’s more important than ever to help others find tools for mental health.
“I came from a place where I had gone through such a bad time, and I wanted to do something,” he says. “There’s a lot of education to be done, even with myself. There are a lot of people in need. I’m looking for creative ways to help.”
He and musical collaborators Alessia Cara, Anne-Marie and Sofía Reyes recently held “Breaking Modern Loneliness: A Conversation on Mental Health,” a virtual conversation for Mental Health Awareness Month moderated by Michelle Carlson from Teen Line. Carlson told nearly 166,000 viewers that the hotline has had a significant increase in calls about stress, anxiety and disappointments such as not being able to spend time with loved ones and the losses of major life events like graduations.
The musicians, in turn, shared tips to help others, including acknowledging and validating the range of feelings they’re going through, being vulnerable with others and thinking about what they’ll do when it’s safe to be out and about again. They also shared how they’ve been struggling — “Every day is a new mountain to climb,” says Anne-Marie — as well as livestreaming to raise money for charities and finding ways for friends and family to speak openly during these unprecedented times.
Lauv’s nonprofit Blue Boy Foundation also partnered with The Jed Foundation (JED), a nonprofit focused on emotional health and suicide prevention for teens and young adults, to roll out an online workshop aimed at helping them care for themselves and their mental well-being.
The workshop aims to create a basic awareness of emotional and mental health, says Dr. Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer for JED. It functions as a standalone, one-hour workshop that focuses three key areas: basic information to promote self-care (managing sleep, nutrition and exercise) and being aware of when you might need support; very simple communication skills; and the value of being engaged in a community.
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Lauv continues to work with Microsoft on his My Blue Thoughts project, which has evolved from booths at his concerts into an online outlet that uses AI to help people to share their feelings, and see how others have similar experiences. Having digital tools to share thoughts, feelings and experiences is an important way to connect with others and find hope during COVID-19, Lauv believes.
Like a lot of people, he’s found some unexpected silver linings during these unprecedented times.
“Sometimes I feel weird, finding blessings in it,” says the 25-year-old singer, whose real name is Ari Leff. Sure, he can’t wait to go back to his favorite restaurant — El Centro in New York — and to see other people, but for now, he’s making the best of it. “I FaceTime with people I don’t always talk to. I’ve slowed down. I’m talking to my family, working on my craft, thinking and reflecting.”
He’s using technology to reach out to people, reconnecting with relationships, deepening them. He’s engaged in monthly therapy sessions and meditating with friends through video chats (a technique he talked about extensively during the “Breaking Modern Loneliness” virtual conversation). He’s free writing, dancing, learning TikToks — and trying to get better at being alone.
He had just released his debut studio album, “~how i’m feeling~” in early March, right when the coronavirus pandemic was engulfing the United States. It’s an album that may resonate with a lot of people right now — especially the first single, “Modern Loneliness.” He’s made a video using social media posts, selfies and phone screenshots while he’s been sheltering in place with one of his older sisters and his teacup Pomeranian, Billy.
“It has definitely made for an interesting chapter for us. We had plans of touring the world now in support of Lauv’s debut album,” says his manager, Steve Bursky. “For everyone in the music industry, there are no right answers at this time. World events have forced us to get really creative, lean into livestreaming to bring experiences to fans, and tap into existing audiences on social media and online marketing to drive the album.”
Lauv has remained at his home in Los Angeles since mid-March creating new music, taking advantage of the time away from the usual touring and promotional events he’d be doing for his album.
“I’m writing tons of stuff. It feels really good,” says Lauv, who is spending long days in the basement studio at this house. “Having a creative outlet really helps. My way of dealing with it is making fun, positive music — not heavy or emotional. I wanted to take my mind away from it.”
He’s dropping more demos, releasing more in the moment and livestreaming to his fans, with whom he’s forged strong connections over the five years he’s been releasing music as Lauv, which is derived from the Latvian word for lion and is a tribute to his family’s heritage.
On Instagram, @lauvsongs has nearly 2 million followers. Social media is key for young artists because it holds “remarkable power in terms of connectivity and amplification of a message and voice,” Bursky says, but with social media “there’s a host of pitfalls, too. Take the song, ‘Modern Loneliness’ — it’s about the false sense of being connected with people and losing true connectivity through real human interaction.”
Lauv’s first single in 2015 was “The Other,” uploaded to SoundCloud. Since then, he’s released more than 50 tracks, which cumulatively have been streamed billions of times. Among them was the 2017 radio- and chart-friendly hit, “I Like Me Better,” which was certified three times multi-platinum in the U.S. and platinum in 12 other countries. He’s also opened for Ed Sheeran on a stadium tour.
Lauv started The Blue Boy Foundation in 2019 as a way to raise funds and awareness about mental health and help fight the stigma of asking for help. He channeled 100% of the proceeds from his single “Sad Forever” to mental health charities, raising more than $150,000, as well as contributing $1 from each ticket sold from his world tour.
Money he raised at the shows is committed to local mental health organizations in the cities he visited, helping young people with mental health conditions. He also brought representatives from those organizations to shows to give his fans access to support and resources.
“Ari’s generation is talking more about depression and anxiety, and Blue Boy Foundation is asking how can we deal with this collectively and help,” says Jeb Gutelius, the foundation’s executive director and only staff member. Based in Boston, he’s worked with musicians — Solange, Jack Antonoff, Common, Dixie Chicks, to name a few — on social impact and philanthropy for more than a decade.
“The music industry is a tough place to make a living,” Gutelius says. “But music has accompanied every single social change effort and Ari and his Blue Boy Foundation show that musicians have a role in this change.”
For Lauv, it made sense to try to help others who were going through what he was going through.
During the pandemic, “everybody is in the same challenging boat. The uncertainty is very difficult, especially at the speed with which this all happened,” JED’s Dr. Schwartz says. “For students that come from less-resourced backgrounds, sometimes they had no place to go.”
For Lauv, personally, acting on concrete steps helps him, and he thinks it can help others.
“I see a lot of tips on Instagram about dealing with being anxious, sad or depressed, but I think having an online workbook to put things into action is the best way to make progress,” he says.
Lauv’s popularity with his fans and his willingness to be open about his own mental health condition makes him a logical spokesperson for young people, who admire celebrities, musicians and athletes, Schwartz says. But he also thinks younger people today are more open and comfortable talking about support than young people were 20 years ago.
It’s no surprise to Lauv’s oldest sister that he wanted to use his craft and his platform to help others.
“Ari’s the kind of person that it’s important to connect with other people, to have deep conversations with people and to be vulnerable,” says Maija Leff, 33, who works at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Public Health. “My guess is it grew out of desire to connect with others, make space for them to be vulnerable and heal on a larger platform, and to help promote spaces where they can do that.”
Now his family is separated by geography, with siblings on two coasts and their parents in Seattle, but they’re connecting as much as they can through group chats.
“It’s brought back that rhythm you have when you all live in a house, checking in by phone all together,” says Maija Leff, who with her mother is on the board of directors for the Blue Boy Foundation.
Family support has always been a central part of the Leff household. Their dad is a high school science teacher, while their mom works in public health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When Lauv was 15, Maija Leff served as his chauffeur, driving him to perform at small venues in Ohio, Atlanta, Tennessee and the East Coast. The shows didn’t draw the huge crowds that see him now; one show she remembers being empty except for the venue owner and the staff from a nearby Pizza Hut.
She says Lauv has always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy: “None of us are good at lying, or holding in our feelings.”
The Leffs’ down-to-earth dynamic has rubbed off in all the right ways to the Lauv team.
“For a young guy, he’s wildly intelligent, incredibly thoughtful and wise,” says Bursky, who started working with him in February 2017. “It’s a tribute to his parents and family he grew up in – to their core values. There’s also an independent spirit in Ari that really resonated with me, owning a fiercely independent company that has built its reputation on going against the grain, and taking the road less traveled.”
Lauv’s interests, passion and affinity for technology align with what Microsoft tries to do in empowering people to make the world a better place, says Amy Sorokas, director of strategic partnerships at Microsoft, which is why the company is continuing the work of My Blue Thoughts.
“We’re hopeful we can extend the sharing and catharsis,” Sorokas says. “It’s a rallying point to get the word out with opportunities for people to help themselves and their friends – especially during COVID-19. As the world has changed, it’s become more and more important.”
Microsoft will continue developing the My Blue Thoughts site, adding new functionality from Azure Cognitive Services, a set of AI tools, to show the commonality of experiences around the world. Bursky thinks it can work on a much broader scale for other bands or artists.
“All these fans brought together by Ari are finding comfort,” he says. “My Blue Thoughts is one of the most beautiful things we’ve been able to do with his platform to date.”
Learn more about Lauv and his commitment to mental health on Microsoft In Culture.
Lead photo: As an independent artist, Lauv isn’t focused only on music. Mental health awareness is a big part of his messaging and his lifestyle. (Photo by Kee Hwang)