“Kids Are Born Stars”, the third title of his second album All 4 Nothinghears acclaimed 27-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ari Leff reflect on his childhood, describing the dream of being a “really big star” as a mantra used in the face of rejection from others.
It would be fair to say that this dream was met head-on by Leff, who burst onto the scene as Lauv five years ago with the electropop hit “I Like Me Better”. Yet for someone who has achieved a level of success that makes selling shows easy, when Leff sits down to chat with me, his humble, self-effacing energy is palpable.
Our zoom call is scheduled three days after the release of his highly anticipated record, along with a new video for latest single “Stranger,” another example of Leff’s songwriting vulnerability. The disc covers a multitude of themes. Everything from battles with inner demons, finding love and falling deep and, perhaps a standout theme, rekindling feelings of childlike wonder. “I’m so excited,” he told me, “I can’t believe this is coming out! I just can’t wait to see what people think.
Almost three years after the release of his first album ~how i feel~, an album that boasted collaborations from Anne-Marie, Troye Sivan and a little-known K-Pop group called BTS, the excitement it talks about is expected. The buzz that followed the record was quickly put to a halt when the pandemic hit the world. With that came a wave of uncertainty and anxiety that caused Leff to turn inward and try to connect with childhood memories. “I wanted the feeling that we have as little kids,” he explains, “you know, before we were told who to be or what was cool and had to put up with the anxiety. This album was honestly just about connecting with my inner child and just trying to be free and have fun. Doing it during lockdown meant I needed that freedom.
Pandemic launches have seen many artists pick up their pens and start new projects. When I ask how the pandemic has served him as an artist, Leff laughs that it’s given him “way too much time to overthink.”
“Honestly, if there was a silver lining, I desperately needed to get closer again,” he admits. “My life had gotten so frenetic with my career, and I was on this kind of trajectory where I had lost touch with myself. I feel like writing this helped me heal the relationship that I had with myself”.
The record is still confessional, littered with honesty and deep cuts while maintaining a sense of hope. The album’s opener and lead single “26” begins with a bar that hears Leff asking, “Can I tell you a story, about a boy who broke his heart?”. We hear this exposition again on the new single, “Stranger”: “I’m no stranger to love / I’m no stranger to meltdown / No stranger to secrets, monsters and demons / I’ve fear of the dark,” he sings passionately in the chorus.
Throughout his career, Leff has consistently proven his advocacy for mental health awareness, whether through the honesty he expresses with his lyrics or by founding his non-profit organization, The Blue Boy Foundation, a project that raised money for mental health initiatives and created a space for fans to open up about their own struggles. Does songwriting serve as a catharsis for him? “Certainly,” he says, “I think about it like that, I think about my life making songs.”
The songs he made for the purpose of understanding his own life have undoubtedly served others. As part of the Blue Boy Foundation, Leff created a global platform called My Blue Thoughts, where fans could share “everything they’re going through” and “let go of something that’s weighing them down.” This space, which comes in the form of an online portal, as well as a booth at Lauv’s shows, testifies to the artist’s advocacy for the ongoing need to speak out about mental health.
“I think that’s part of the job when it comes to music and art,” Leff tells me. “It’s not always on purpose either, when I think of my favorite music it can create an escape. It can take me to a place where I feel heard and seen. It’s so cool that something that I do it for fun, and something that helps me can help someone else. It’s crazy, frankly.”
Although many tracks on the record deal with themes of depression and anxiety, which makes All 4 Nothing so special is the sense of hope it gives. It’s nearly impossible to listen to “Kids are Born Stars” without smiling, whether it’s its upbeat production, the main theme of igniting our inner child, or the song‘s endearing moment where we hear the son of his manager, Joshua, to repeat the lead role. choir line; “I’m going to be a very big star!”.
“Every time I found myself stressed out on Facetime for my manager,” Leff explains, “Joshua was there in the background saying to me, ‘Ari, you get it, don’t worry, it’s okay,’ and one day we We were playing around with the lyrics to “Kids Are Born Stars” and I took it on the mic, and we added it to the song.
“The inner child theme came from this experience I had in therapy where I was guided through this meditation, it was this visualization where I was in this space surrounded by different Aris, all at different ages. It was me at eight years old, twelve years old, sixteen years old and so on. I went on these little journeys where I connected with myself and remembered parts of myself that I had forgotten. I continued with that meditation and it became a big part of the record.”
While therapy, meditative practices and a healthy dose of soul-searching fueled the writing of the new record, Leff took a step back from the production this time around. “Everything I did bored me and didn’t inspire me,” he says, “I had a handful of people I really trusted and loved working with. [who led the production]. I was concentrating on the lyrics and freestyling with the melodies. It was a really liberating experience, because I’m usually so locked in when it comes to perfecting music. So it was good to be a little more free”.
Leff’s face lights up whenever I mention the imminent release of the record; he can’t wait for fans to hear it and can’t wait to get back to performing live. He’s hitting the road this week with Hayley Kiyoko for a North American tour and he’s spent the previous weeks in rehearsal. “Everything looks amazing,” he says, “the shows are always very dynamic. Everything from super crazy and explosive moments to just me on acoustic guitar. There’s also a little meditation vibe, which will make sense when the show takes place. I didn’t get a chance to shoot the last album due to Covid, so I’ll get a chance to play those songs as well. It’s going to be a hot, sweaty, funny and emotional show.”
Although no date in Europe has been announced, Leff says he is “very patiently, but also looking forward to coming back.” The current tour runs through the end of September, at iconic venues such as the Greek Theater in Los Angeles – a testament to its success over the past few years. He also amassed an army of dedicated fans around the world, who connected deeply with his work and gained something from his music. What will they remember from the new record? “I think if someone is feeling a little floating or anxious and disconnected from themselves, or wondering why life isn’t the way it used to be, then hopefully that gives them hope that they’ll be able to have that connection again,” Leff explains, “even if it’s just for a while. I think it starts there, just getting a glimpse of feeling truly connected to beauty and a love of life.”