In championing art as therapy, the Gen Z musician provides a peek into the metaphorical bedroom of an uncertain generation
“Disclaimer,” Leyla Blue says as she tries to maneuver a jumpy, white convertible BMW out of the narrow driveway of her Hollywood Hills bungalow. “I just got my driver’s license.” Screeching axles cover up her curses as her three-point turn becomes eight-pointed. It looks like we’ll be late to her 6 p.m. soundcheck at the Observatory in Santa Ana, where she’ll be opening for internet sensation Tai Verdes in the second week of their tour together. “It’s just one of those I-wanna-kill-myself kinda days,” she says as she looks at the time on her iPhone, unread text messages flooding the lock screen. Her voice is throaty, thin, and her mouth hardly moves while she speaks. Still, she says what she says with authority, flicking her sunglasses with TikTok it-girl swagger. Gripping the wheel tightly in a black bodycon dress with white lining and an attached white collar, she looks like an impious nun escaping the convent.
If you’ve never heard of Leyla Blue, don’t worry. She’ll change that. Leyla Blue is a scrupulously determined multihyphenate pop artist who leads a small army of young women as determined and dedicated to Blue as Blue is. She asks me if I can “look at the map every so often,” giving me the passcode to her phone, proactively initiating me into Team Blue.
“Bootstrapping,” “DIY,” and “guerilla,” are some of the words used to describe her career by her teenage troops. “I want to fund my career like an early-stage startup,” Blue said on our introductory call in late October of 2021. We were FaceTiming from different coasts. Her layered, bleached blonde hair was rolled up into large curlers, bobbing in and out of frame. Between the ’70s-styled hair and winged eyeliner, she looked like a young Dolly Parton. She apologized for her roommate’s voice in the background and for her tardy start. Before long, I learned that she is perpetually late and perpetually apologizing for her lateness. She warned me that once she’s on tour, she’ll be hard to pin down. She wasn’t wrong. So, I flew to LA hoping that she would then answer my texts.
The road trip from Hollywood Hills to Santa Ana, theoretically a 40-minute drive, takes us three hours. I have a litany of questions prepared, but Blue talks without pause—lucid, controlled, and with a deadpan humor that she often punctuates with profanity. She speaks openly about her struggles with an eating disorder, bouts of depression and loneliness, and periods of debilitating OCD. She recounts these periods of darkness in pragmatic terms. “I had my aware self, and then this self that would jump on me at any point,” Blue explains. Her power, she says, stems from her vulnerability.
Blue is correct: She’s a poor driver. She keeps smashing the brakes on the congested 405 and then apologizing. It’s a chilled November night in Los Angeles, and the wind whips through the cracked car windows. Blue has been having voice problems, so she speaks softly. “I really have to stop talking,” she says before breaking into voice exercises: humming, la-la-la-ing, fe-fi-fo-fum-ing.
“Blue’s story is more than emblematic of an era of young girls who are trying to find their voice. It is a peek into the metaphorical bedroom of an uncertain generation.”
This is Blue’s first tour. She was supposed to travel with the ukulele-strumming bedroom-pop artist mxmtoon in Europe, after Blue’s song, “What A Shame,” blew up seemingly overnight on TikTok. Duda Reis, the 20-year-old Brazilian Instagram starlet, used Blue’s betrayal love song as the audio to vlog her dirty laundry during a tabloid-filled breakup. The song is now platinum in Brazil. But Blue pulled out of the 2020 tour after she fell ill with what she assumed was COVID. She’s been on the road for a week now, nursing her voice with a nebulizer. She had to cancel her set in Dallas after blowing her vocal cords the night before in Houston. A week later, the missed event is still a sensitive subject.
Leyla Blue is many things. Popstar on the rise, daughter of famed fashion photographers Guy Aroch and Anna Palma, recent Island Records defector, TikTok puppeteer, singer-songwriter… She’s also her own manager, stylist, brand ambassador, and promoter. Blue’s Instagram bio, “underrated popstar,” will be fitting until it isn’t. Pompom, Blue’s music producer and close confidant, says resolutely over a phone call, “Oh, in five years—she’s headlining tours. Madison Square Garden. Barclays.” Of course, it’s Pompom’s job to say this as a staff hype woman.
Blue is a vertically integrated chameleon of artistic enterprise. After clearing her managerial house, she works to promote herself, reimagining fan and artist engagement by marketing her work with a calculating hand. There is not an outfit, a vocal note, or a TikTok video overlooked by her. She painstakingly answers all her DMs, responds to every social media comment, and always mingles with fans, new and old, after her sets. She has a momentary panic attack at a rest stop, somewhere near Disneyland, squatting over a pee-soaked toilet as she realizes that this is her new normal. As we get back in the car, she tells me she’s acutely aware of the onerous undertaking of the independent pop star. Every three-hour drive to a performance is just a commute to the office.
Leyla Blue, born Leyla Blue Aroch, grew up in Lower Manhattan’s hip neighborhood, Tribeca. Guy Aroch and Anna Palma raised their three daughters, Leyla Blue, Sun Shine, and Coco Lou, on their freelance income. Both are internationally acclaimed fashion and celebrity photographers, shooting advertising campaigns for major brands including Coca-Cola, Gucci, and Victoria’s Secret.
“My husband and I, as freelancers, were quite busy,” Anna Palma says. “So I just told Leyla, ‘I’ll support you in any way I can.’” Blue attended Beacon High School before transferring to the Professional Children’s School—a private preparatory school in Manhattan with compact lessons ending around noon to allow students to pursue vocations.
Blue’s music career began in 2017 with a DM and a lonely trip to Los Angeles. She was in her senior year at the Professional Children’s School. Sam Reas, Rich Christina’s assistant at the time, found Blue’s profile on Instagram where she regularly posted short acapella clips from her bedroom. Reas DMed Blue, expressing interest in her music and offering an industry leg-up. Blue, who was 17 at the time, confesses that her mom flew with her from New York, just for the day, so she could check Blue into the hotel. “I’m out here, alone in a hotel room. Staying on Sunset. Skipping school for a week. I missed my prom,” Blue says, smiling. “The day of my prom, I had a session with Alex & Alex and Sam Fisher. Long story short, we end up writing this song called ‘Illegally Alone.’ It was about me being illegally alone in a hotel room.”
“Leyla and I were sitting at a café one day, and we were like, ‘You know what? We can liken optimized deal structures to venture capitalism.’”
Blue wears her ambition with steely, flirty confidence. Pompom, her producer, recalls her first impression of Blue when she came to the old Arcade recording studio in Times Square. “She had this giant Britney Spears t-shirt on. These pink pants. This Playboy Bunny backpack. Her hair was all crazy. And she was like, ‘This is who I’m inspired by. This is what I’m trying to do. This is the music I love.’” The memory gets Pompom laughing, and then she says, “She knew what she wanted.”
Blue signed with Island Records two years later, in 2019. “I literally was a 19-year-old girl who walked into an office and convinced this group of guys 10 years older than me to sign me,” Blue says of her first meeting with the label. She played her EP for them, Songs for Boys That Didn’t Text Me Back, which included “Silence,” “What A Shame,” and “I Don’t Wanna Know”—all written with Pompom and Jesse Fink, her usual songwriting partners. Blue was in her second year at Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU Tisch, admitting that she was waiting to “get signed and drop out.” Leaving the meeting, she knew in her gut she was going to sign with them. “That was when I realized the music industry is a joke.”
Blue took a leave of absence from Clive Davis in 2019 after her contract deal. She is not free to speak about her recent legal dispute and contract termination with Island Records this past summer. What we do know is that she’s no longer signed with the company and “Peppa Pig [Prod. Y2K]” is no longer on Spotify. We also know that the pace of Blue’s career has quickened since her departure, now that she’s able to take marketing and creative direction into her own hands.
“Why should a creative be in debt to a massive institution?” asks Blue’s childhood friend, Sophie De Laney, who is currently an interim manager figure for Blue. “Leyla and I were sitting at a café one day, and we were like, ‘You know what? We can liken optimized deal structures to venture capitalism.’” De Laney, another Gen Z dynamo, exudes the casual authority of a keynote speaker at the hotel bar of a conference. “The truth is, we don’t need to sign a 360 deal. And we don’t need to be giving someone—in exchange for marketing support—a massive percentage of the touring, of the merch, brand deals, some of the publishing, and the entirety of the masters. It just doesn’t really make sense.”
Blue’s first single as an independent artist, “Hot One,” which features fellow “bad bitches” REI AMI and Baby Tate, was released on December 3. This is the first song on Spotify that Leyla Blue will own the masters to. We blast it on the ride to Santa Ana as Blue speak-sings the lyrics with shameless bravado, turning the volume to max when the chorus comes on. A funk dance track in the vein of Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” starts with low, rhythmic hollow-base drums, and builds with uplifting force to the hook: “If I’m gonna be a mess, I’m a hot one”—a head turn with a wink to the era of young Britney, Christina Aguilera, and Gwen Stefani.
Blue is resolute in surrounding herself with women role models. “I’m extremely female-driven,” she affirms. Her mother’s side is from Iceland, a second home to Blue. “Iceland is the best country in the world to be a woman [in]. They’ve even had a gay female president.”
Challenging the hyper-manufactured pop music culture that raised her, Blue works with a small group of female producers and family members. Sophie De Laney, who has known Blue since sixth-grade science class, brags about her friend: “In her circles, she is such an uplifting force for independent artists—specifically female independent artists who are prone to being taken advantage of in a system that hasn’t been revolutionized or innovated in such a long time.”
Communicating a message of empowerment to women, and actually empowering the women around her, are equally important to Blue. “I’m literally up here being like, ‘Women are just as smart.’ Which is true—whether or not you have a degree. But I just felt like kind of a phony encouraging women to get educated and not being so myself.” Blue returned to school last January at the Gallatin independent study division of NYU. “This person that I want to be—this girl in a suit, that makes money moves—she has a degree,” Blue says jokingly. She’s on track to graduate this year.
Blue’s booking manager, 19-year-old Natalle Jastrow, is waiting on the grass island outside the Observatory, waving the car down with both arms when we arrive in Santa Ana. Blue is whisked inside by a bouncer for a hurried sound check as Jastrow moves traffic cones to secure a parking spot.
The green room at the venue is a dingy, black-painted cell, but the crew seems unbothered. Blue, Jastrow, and guitarist Dave Marcus pass time before the show by eating baby carrots and giggling over inside jokes. “We gotta add gluten-free chips to the list,” Blue says with a mouthful of hummus. “Got it,” Jastrow says. Their relationship fluctuates between best friends and boss-employee. Blue tells me that before Jastrow, producer Pompom was her best friend. Blue and Jastrow peer over a phone held by both girls, laughing and gossiping about some industry boy. The spell is broken when Blue asks for tea for her throat, and best-friend-Jastrow turns back into employee-Jastrow who springs up to get it.
“‘She’s the voice of our generation,’ I overhear a young blonde with braces and a Herschel backpack say to her friend.”
Blue, the eldest daughter of the three Aroch girls, had her first taste of pop music watching High School Musical with her older cousin Agusta. Agusta traveled to Tribeca from Iceland in the summers to babysit the girls. For many children, music taste is shaped through exposure from older siblings or friends. Agusta was Blue’s tutor in mainstream media. Whether it was Frank Ocean, Daft Punk, or Perez Hilton, Blue’s first encounter with pop culture was like the Little House on the Prairie girls tasting chocolate ice cream for the first time.
Blue’s father, Guy Aroch, an “Israeli, cynic, and artist,” as Blue describes him, would play classic rock in the home where she grew up. He chided Blue for her taste in pop. She thought that his Leonard Cohen album sounded “like death,” Blue jeers. “Literally like he’s dying and speaking from his deathbed.” At age 13, when she began singing, she quickly found the beauty in Cohen’s music and would sing “Suzanne”—a disturbing yet stunning, mostly true autobiographical lament. But during her adolescence, Blue and her father’s feud over pop music was like the boyfriend your parents tell you not to date—it only fueled her infatuation.
Dave Marcus plugs and unplugs wires on stage as Blue and Jastrow huddle behind the door. “Bad bitch pop star energy on three,” Blue calls out, counting us off. As she saunters on stage, the Tai Verdes crowd is hesitant to embrace her. Besides a handful of Leyla Blue devotees who chatter excitedly, flashing their hand-painted signs, the crowd stands in waiting silence. Blue’s thin frame and wispy blonde locks are obscured by blinding stage lights. She grasps the microphone. “Some of you might not know who I am. My name is Leyla Blue, and I’m an artist from New York City,” she says in an unassuming voice.
In a brazen choice, Blue opens with “I Say A Little Prayer,” a song previously performed by the likes of Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. “The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup,” Blue belts from the depths of her gut, spicing the high notes with a sultry quiver. She sings the song with heart, precision, and a soulfulness her country-blonde mane and vestal nun look prepared no one for. By the end of the second song, a diaristic R&B original called “Gasoline,” the energy in the crowd has heated up.
Blue speaks to the audience between songs, connecting more tightly with each quip, confession, and “girlboss” anecdote. “I wrote this at the height of the #MeToo movement,” Blue says in preparation of her song, “F*** Yourself.”
“It seems, almost instinctively, that Blue is capitalizing on the Gen Z social currency of authenticity.”
“Ain’t it funny how a man who’s never met me / Tries to tell me what I can and cannot do with my body? / Ain’t it funny how we tell our little girls / Don’t be a slut like it’s my fault / He held me down at that party.” Blue sings with venom and vitriol. During the chorus, the crowd sticks out their middle fingers with violent enthusiasm. “So, you can go and—” Blue holds the microphone out to the crowd. They wail out the refrain, “Fuck yourself!”
Save for the opening, Blue’s set is composed of seven original songs. The lyrics are punchy and clever, and she sing-talks certain lines that call for annunciation and attention. After “Company,” she discloses to the crowd, “That song was about some deep shit—mental health and my eating disorders. Thanks for making this a safe space. I want this to be a safe space for you, too.” Blue now has a cult-leader hold on the crowd, especially the young women, who whoop and bounce gleefully at every small interjection.
The bartender, a young woman with buzzed hair and tattoos from her fingers to her chin, steps over from behind the bar. She had never heard of Leyla Blue before. “Look at me,” she says, motioning her hands up her body, hovering around the large gauges in her earlobes. “I am the girl she’s singing about.”
Dr. Elly Scrine, lecturer at the University of Melbourne, situates Blue’s effect on her core audience in socio-political context. “Women from middle-class backgrounds tend to be the voice of feminist empowerment narratives,” Dr. Scrine says. But Blue’s story is more than emblematic of an era of young girls who are trying to find their voice. It is a peek into the metaphorical bedroom of an uncertain generation.
Blue had her first panic attack at age five. As she watched her peers navigate social situations with uninhibited ease, Blue had already encountered what she calls a “demon.” She breathlessly describes this “switch inside of [her] that could go off at any minute.” She had no idea that anyone had experienced a panic attack besides her.
Before she became a singer, Blue was a gymnast at NYC Elite, a top Manhattan gymnastics program. Gymnastics, a precise and anxiety-producing sport, exalts perfectionism. “I would always be deceived by the illusion that I can get close to perfect, and then if I get close, I’ll be happy,” recalls Blue. While her anxiety is almost as old as she is, Blue’s eating disorder waited to express itself until sixth grade, when she quit gymnastics after an exceptionally bad panic attack. Blue remembers knowing instantly that eating would be an issue for her—fearing that without the intense gymnastics workout regime, she might gain weight. This was at age 11.
“I always felt like the fat kid,” she professes. “It was always a thing that mattered. I live in New York. My parents would edit all their pictures at home. I would see so many models. I was so aware of it.” But Blue seems dedicated to finding peace, and after years of journaling and therapy, there is no bitterness in her words. With dignified composure, she says, “I stopped eating lunch when I was in sixth grade. And at the end of that year, I just fully stopped eating.”
“I would always be deceived by the illusion that I can get close to perfect, and then if I get close, I’ll be happy.”
Looking back, Blue confides, “I was the most judgmental I’ve ever been in my life. It’s just a miserable life. I didn’t realize how much of that came from my own insecurity.” After Blue’s increasingly apparent weight loss, her parents sent her to a therapist where, at the age of 12, she was diagnosed with OCD. “Whether it was a therapist or yoga or hypnotherapy,” her mother recalls, “we tried all kinds of things in order to make her feel better.” By 2010, the year Instagram was launched, Blue’s eating disorder was at a peak, perhaps worsened by the clinical diagnosis and professional monitoring.
Blue’s epiphany was on a Thursday night in January of 2013, when serendipitously, she stumbled upon a video of Demi Lovato talking about their eating disorder. It was the first time Blue realized she had formidable company. Within one weekend, Blue “turned from a really bitter, insecure child who had nothing to live for, to having a purpose.” Her purpose: to connect with her audience on the basis of intimacy and vulnerability. The art of singing was actually an afterthought.
“What the fuck? Am I about to be a singer?” Blue says, imitating her 13-year-old self. Her desire to reach those struggling and make them feel less alone supplied Blue with the determination to teach herself to sing. Sunny and Coco, Blue’s younger sisters, shared a room at the time. “Me and Coco were always so annoyed,” Sunny remembers. “Every night, Leyla would belt her brains out.”
Blue’s mother, Anna Palma, laughs as she remembers the early days of Blue’s singing career. “Maybe in the beginning, she didn’t necessarily sound great to herself or others,” Palma says cautiously, with a chuckle. Palma recalls Blue’s hunt for voice lessons and music instruction, stipulating that she wouldn’t just introduce her daughter to industry professionals. Rather, if Blue did the legwork to find the coaches, “I’ll pay for everything.”
Jesse Fink, Leyla’s co-writer and creative sounding board, says, “I’ve worked with artists where it’s just a cool thing that they can sing. The idea of being famous is appealing.” While Blue thrives in the spotlight, the allure of fame does not appear to be Blue’s motivator. Supporters and collaborators experience firsthand her relentless mission to become a vehicle worthy of conveying raw and genuine emotion. “Leyla is someone who truly needs to do this as therapy.”
Today, the stage is Blue’s work, therapist’s office, and place of worship. It seems, almost instinctively, that Blue is capitalizing on the Gen Z social currency of authenticity. Her newest single, “It Still Rains In Paradise,” was released last month with the music video dropping last Monday. The sensuous yet detached lyrics lament some of the darkest periods of her depression and anxiety. Partnering with Payback Records, Blue’s new release is helping fund nonprofits that raise awareness for those struggling with mental health. The music video, shot by Blue’s parents, is a nostalgic tribute to old Hollywood and the empty, unsatisfying glamor of California’s elite. The sleek, unscratched Black Mercedes convertible that Blue dispassionately drives in the video is a slight upgrade from the white Beamer I braved months prior.
The concert is wrapping up and Blue’s admirers clamor toward her. She weaves through the back of the crowd with a bashful smile, stopping to converse with, embrace, and sign the posters of her school-aged groupies who came to shriek the lyrics of “What a Shame.” She recites her Instagram handle to a group of converted fans. “She’s the voice of our generation,” I overhear a young blonde with braces and a Herschel backpack say to her friend. “Follow me!” Blue calls over her shoulder as she slips behind the door backstage.