Duncan Laurence may have started out as a small-town boy from the Netherlands, singing songs to himself and his piano. However, after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2019 with “Arcade,” it is clear that the singer-songwriter is in fact a global star. Two years later, and the song has gone viral once more — this time through TikTok — securing Laurence his very first Billboard Hot 100 hit.
“Magically out of nowhere during COVID, TikTok happened. It was just a gift from the universe I feel,” Laurence says during our Zoom chat in early May. “I’d been asking myself constantly — what do I want to do? Who am I? Am I on the right path? Is this the music I want to make? I think TikTok and all the people who shared, loved, and streamed the song answered that for me. It was such validation, and not only a career breakthrough, but also for me — like, I’m on the right path, I’m doing things OK and it’s all making sense now,” he says with a smile.
It’s rare that artists get to experience multiple breakthroughs with the exact same song, but to Laurence, it almost seemed serendipitous. Few non-Dutch fans will know that Laurence originally started out as a contestant on The Voice of Holland. And while it didn’t feel like a breakthrough for him as an artist at the moment, it did help him make the decision to “go behind the scenes and develop myself. I had to find out who I wanted to be as a person and as an artist.”
It was his coach from The Voice, Ilse de Lange, who he showed his songs and who made it possible for him to submit “Arcade” to the Eurovision Song Contest. “I think that was the first big breakthrough, also for me in my own mind,” he says. “All of a sudden, I went from being a songwriter in literally my bedroom to standing on one of the biggest stages in the world, performing a song that I truly loved. I still love it, and it’s truly representative of me as an artist and musician.”
“Arcade” was the first Eurovision song entry on the Billboard Hot 100 in over 24 years, and only the 11th song ever from the competition. Not only that, but the smash hit has accumulated over one billion streams across streaming platforms as well as various No. 1s across Europe. Laurence couldn’t be happier with the prolonged success of the track. “Everything came together because the story that’s in it is by far the story I wanted to tell as a first single. Winning was amazing because that only broadened the platform that I was trying to build.”
He is incredibly conscious of said platform, not only because it shapes and reflects his artistic identity, but also because he knows how impactful it can be. Laurence reiterated he was bisexual during a Eurovision press conference prior to the semi-finals in 2019, emphasizing that he was proud to be able to show who he was as an artist, as well as a human being. “In every single interview where they’d ask me ‘and what does your girlfriend think’ – and I’d go ‘well my boyfriend loves it.’ And then they were like, ‘Wow, so amazing that you’re so open about it.’ I’m happy Eurovision made it possible for me to show myself on such a large platform, and not hold back,” he says.
But the experience not only allowed him to help others, it also helped him. “I learned during Eurovision that being who you are is enough, and being different is not bad, it’s actually really good,” he says. “It makes the world so much more fun and more diverse. Eurovision is a big part of who I am today because the crowd is amazing and so welcoming.”
It’s that sense of being welcome, of feeling seen and understood and represented through music, that he can identify with himself as well. “When I was in high school and was still finding out what the hell was happening in my mind, Paramore helped me a lot,” he shares. “It really got me through tough times. The way in which they embraced everyone — if you see their concerts these days, there are rainbow flags everywhere. It’s so open and so nice,” he recalls. “I wrote songs when I was young and bullied all the time because they created a safe space for me where I could be who I was. I shared it with just myself, it was just me and the piano. If I can create that for people where it’s actually making a connection with other people that are like-minded, that would be the ultimate goal.”
The Dutchman has seemingly already succeeded in doing so, as he tells me that he receives daily messages from fans who feel heard, seen, or safe when listening to his music. “It’s amazing to receive those,” he shares. “It feels like what I’m doing actually makes sense and touches people. And if it’s helping them out with their sexuality, which of course I can relate to so much, it’s just,” he pauses. “It’s a mixed feeling because you can feel so happy for them, but if they live in a country where they don’t have the same rights that we have here in the Netherlands, it’s just, very hard and difficult to put your mind into someone else’s process. How would you react and what can you say to someone who lives in a country where there aren’t as many gay rights? You can’t just go: ‘It’ll all be fine, it’ll all blow over, and you’ll be so happy.’ Of course, you need to do that and motivate people, as they’re finally finding out who they are and at peace with who they are, but at the same, it’s so difficult, because how do you balance that? Because realistically speaking, it may actually not be fine,” Laurence explains.
It’s something that he said has made him think a lot, especially during lockdown. What can artists do, and what should they do? It’s only compelled him to be always honest and open as an artist and musician. “I’ll always mention those things that I’ve been going through, and hopefully they’ll get strength from that, and hear that. And maybe one day, they’ll be able to move or the situation in their countries will get better. I think that those messages, in particular from people where I feel, ‘Shit, I’m so sorry that you are living in those circumstances, because you’re beautiful the way you are,’ really made me even more determined to be honest and open no matter who is in front of me. I’ve always said and I stand by that. I am who I am and I do what I do, and I put the music out I want to put out. Every single song is just me, there’s no censorship, no thought process of ‘Maybe I can’t say this.’ Whenever it speaks to my heart, whenever it’s honest, I’ll write a song about it,” he concludes.
Still, it’s something that he doesn’t take for granted. Laurence says he used to be much more aware of what pronouns he was using in a song. “But right now, if the song is about a boy I’ll say ‘he,’ if it’s about a girl I’ll say ‘she.’ Most of the times, though, I prefer to go to ‘you,’ because I want to truly connect with people. I want my songs to be able to relate to anyone, and when you write songs with ‘he’ or ‘she,’ it’s already no longer referring to the listener themselves.”
Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean he will shy away from topics that are specifically about his experiences as a member of the community. “I have written songs that are not out yet, about finding out who I am and where I want to stand as an LGBT artist, and how to deal with my sexuality and all those struggles,” he says.
He continues, “The most important thing is that if a song asks for a particular way to describe things, whether it’s pronouns or creating a visual about a certain story you want to tell, be it a queer story or any story. I will always write open and honest songs, that’s what I’ve always done. My whole album is autobiographical. I think as long as it’s inspiration that comes from a place that’s not censored and just honest and open, that’s when I write my best. I think we’ve also entered this era in music where it’s no longer needed to hide away or not mention certain things. If you look around at the amazing queer artists out there, like Sam [Smith], Conan [Gray], Troye [Sivan], and FLETCHER, it’s so much easier nowadays to be who you are and open up, luckily. I’m very happy about that. I love queer artists, I’m just a sucker for their music,” he adds.
In fact, Laurence was able to work with FLETCHER when they ended up recording a duet version of “Arcade” last year. “FLETCHER and I have the same amazing team,” he says. “When I was visiting Capitol for the first time in LA, they were talking so highly of her, so I dove into her music. I really liked her, her voice, her music, her whole artistry! She’s such a powerful performer but also a powerful woman, just in general, she’s amazing,” Laurence gushes.
Still, it came as a bit of a surprise when FLETCHER offered to jump on his breakout song. “She reached out to me and said, ‘Hey I’ve been hearing so much about you, would you like to see if I could write a verse on your song?’ And I thought — which song? She said, ‘Arcade,’ and I thought, ‘Oh God, OK, I’ve been singing that song for one and a half years now, so that’s going to be a bit of a mindfuck for me. But let’s give it a try because I love you, so go ahead.’ She sent me the verse and some choruses and then I immediately thought, I have to go back into the studio and re-record the choruses too, because this sounds insane. I’m really proud of the final version and for this to be my first duet with such an amazing artist.”
What is more, being able to work together with who someone who’s also part of the community brought an added layer of love to the entire process. “To be able to not only share music but also share a certain passion for who we are and a struggle for where we come from and where we are nowadays is an amazing, big thing,” he says. “And hopefully, we’re able to inspire other people that are struggling with those same things. That if you have a dream, even if you are held back by whatever reason, your sexuality or whatever, I just want to show that you can do whatever you want and be whoever you are. Just set your mind to it and do it.”
And while it’s obviously not a prerequisite for any of his collaborators to be part of the queer community, Laurence does admit that he particularly enjoys writing in Los Angeles for that reason. “I’m surrounded in LA by amazing songwriters and producers, and most of them are queer artists that are so open and in sync with who they are. I can only look at them with so much respect because that’s who I want to be too, that’s how I want to be. That’s why I think, out of all places, LA is where I feel most comfortable opening up. Also when it comes to, for example, telling straight people about my experiences of loving a boy. Because that can be so confronting, you never know who you’ll end up within a session, it’s always a little nerve-wracking. I’m always a bit nervous, but in the US they are so open and so nice about everything. There’s no difference between writing a song for a boy or a girl or whatever. That’s really nice.”
Nonetheless, it’s those writing sessions with other queer creatives that also really give him a feeling of pride. “A good friend of mine, Leland, also writes for Troye Sivan,” he says. “Or when I’m writing with my partner, Jordan Garfield. Those moments make me realize that there are so many people in this world that are queer and are doing so well, and are so eager to share their success with other people of the community. And I think that makes us strong, and I think that’s something we always have to cherish. We always have to join forces with each other, because that’s how our voice gets huge and heard, and that’s how we cannot be denied anywhere in the world.”
It’s that sense of community that’s also central to Pride. Laurence smiles when I bring this up. “To me, Pride means to be who you are. Whether it’s a growing process to become who you are, or unapologetically being you — anything on that spectrum is pride to me. And it’s beautiful, that feeling that you get once you feel, this is who I want to be, this is who I am, this is who I’ve always been, I’ve finally found that person. That feeling is pride times x1000. And during Pride, you can go out and meet new people who think in the same way, have gone through the same struggle, and that makes it so easy to connect. It’s all about that connection and being able to just be yourself.”
Laurence made sure to create such a safe space for his fans as well, through the development of his own fan app: Base. “It’s really cool because I wanted to start that platform after I saw how people could be so cruel and mean on social media. And I don’t want my fans who want to open up to me or other fans, I don’t want them to be held back by that. I wanted to create a safe environment where they could be themselves and open up and enjoy being a bit of a Duncan Laurence freak here and there,” he jokes. “We’ve had coming outs, we’ve had people opening up about their mental health, so many beautiful moments, like, ‘Hey I’m struggling with this, is there anyone who can talk about this or listen to songs to cheer me up, or has advice on how I can overcome this?’ I think that’s the power of music, connection, and a fanbase — a community. I’m really proud of that.”
He’s also happy with the fact he’s being given the opportunity more and more to speak out as a a member of the community himself. Case in point, his new song “Heaven Is a Hand to Hold” that features on the Season 2 soundtrack of Love, Victor, a series that “inspires so many LGBTQ+ kids around the world that it’s OK to be who they are and to love who they love,” according to Laurence.
The piece of advice that he would give to his own fans? “If you’re struggling with things or with negativity. It might seem like you are at this place in your mind where you can only focus on the negative. But especially when you’re struggling with who you are, just give it time. Don’t expect things to blow over or change in a day or week. It takes time. Once you’ve reached the level at which you can be truly content with who you are, because you’ve worked for it, and you’ve told yourself positive things every single day, and surrounded yourself with people who lift you up. The family we choose, that’s what it’s all about. Find your family, find the family you can choose, and appreciate every single bit that you are because you’re you and you’re beautiful,” he tells me passionately.
Of course, embracing who you are, flaws and all, is easier said than done. When asked if there’s someone that he would like to add to his own found family as a source of inspiration or perhaps aspiration, Laurence tells me that I might be surprised by his answer. “A person I’ve always admired is Miley Cyrus. The way in which she’s always been herself no matter what phase she went through, it’s just something I admire from the bottom of my heart. She is one of the most unique artists we have at the moment, who constantly thrives in finding something new and finding herself over and over again. She engages her audience to step up on her level. She just keeps growing and I want to be like that too. I want to find new worlds with every single album and evolve, and never get bored of who I am, what I want to do and put out. That’s the dream.”
It actually doesn’t surprise me at all. Sure, Laurence may not be American, did not grow up with country icons Billy Ray Cyrus and Dolly Parton, and has never been the face of a primetime Disney show. But just like Cyrus, he’s unapologetically honest, queer, and on a quest to continuously evolve his artistry. Most importantly, they’re both ridiculously talented.
The newly released deluxe version of Small Town Boy only further confirms this and serves as a great indicator that the best is yet to come. “I want to grow and extend, and be who I am every single time I put something out. Telling a story will always be at the heart of what I do, that will never change, but the way in which the story is wrapped will. I already have so many songs that I’m so excited to start producing and finding a new world beyond that of Small Town Boy — an evolution of what I’ve already been doing.”
Laurence’s journey has only just begun. No longer a small-town boy, but a global star who’s destined to shine even brighter and love even louder in the future.