Tired at the Top: David Guetta Talks Love, Loss & New Album 'Listen'

Nabil Elderkin
David Guetta

Dance music's pop pioneer gets personal on sixth studio album.

Drinking water in TomorrowWorld's twilight, David Guetta looks dead-tired.

The French superstar's auburn locks hang limp on his leather-clad shoulders. His beard is unkempt and his voice is hoarse. His posture speaks of patchwork sleep snatched from airplane seats. While bleary from a late night at his XS Las Vegas residency, his eyes still hold a glint that outshines his silver designer jeans.

Guetta's exhaustion is entirely understandable. Dance music's crossover champion has weathered his toughest year to date, finishing his sixth studio album while soldiering through a grueling global touring schedule and navigating a messy divorce with Cathy Guetta, his wife and business partner of 22 years.

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The 47-year-old released Listen, his first full-length effort in three years, this week on Parlophone France. While the sprawling 18-track outing offers plenty of his patented, radio-ready ear candy in singles "Dangerous," "Lovers on the Sun" and "Bad," it excels in its more introspective offerings, such as sublime piano standout "What I Did for Love." In a reedy tone, Guetta admits that Listen reflects the toll of his recent trials.

"A lot of things have happened in my personal life lately, and it has definitely influenced the topics on the album," he says. "I'm not a songwriter myself, but working with songwriters on the songs, of course what you go through in your life influences the music you make. That's normal."

Guetta cracks an afterthought smile.

"I'm still a very positive person," he insists. "I still love to party and have fun, and I'm full of happiness. But I've been through some hard stuff lately. I think you can feel it in the songs."

I can feel it in our interview, too. Guetta stammers through his album's litany of collaborators, painfully tracing his finger down an iTunes playlist on a laptop his aide hurries over. He shakes his head and trails off for a moment, then pivots to describe the stress of tackling a new project following his trailblazing success. For Guetta, a new album can't simply reflect the status quo. It must reshape it.

"It's super challenging to reinvent myself every time -- it's a lot of pressure," he admits. "I think the point of making a new album is to say something that hasn't been said before. I think every time I was successful, it's because I took risks. When I did the combination between urban and house, that was completely against the rules."

On Listen, Guetta says he opted for a traditional songwriting approach, taking a lead role with lyrics and beginning with vocal, piano and guitar tracks before adding dance production elements. He also turned away from the bombastic sounds that currently monopolize the main stage, returning to his melodic roots with live strings and fluid piano lines that more closely resemble his past pop standards than his current DJ sets.

"I miss soul and emotion," he says. "A lot of EDM lately is based on production tricks that make it sound huge. I think it's not enough. These songs can be played by a classical orchestra, a rock band, or a funk band, and they would be great. It's not like, 'Oh wow, if you don't have this huge distorted kick, there's nothing else.'"

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For Listen, Guetta recruited a new collaborative supporting cast to join past musical partners Nicki Minaj and Sia, including John Legend, Ryan Tedder, Emeli Sandé and Sam Martin. Although he worked with Dutch duo Showtek on three of the album's more traditional big room tracks, he believes the album signals an overall shift away from the style.

"As much as I love playing and producing it -- this record 'Bad' with Showtek is completely in that vein -- but yes, personally I want to make a different kind of music now," he says. "I'm not saying it's finished or other people can't do it. I can only speak for myself and what I do as an artist."

After conquering the airwaves with 2009's One Love and 2011's Nothing But the Beat, Guetta recognizes that he has become a convenient scapegoat for those who resent dance music's current commercialization. He claims he quit listening to his detractors years ago, but it's clear that certain critiques still hit close to home.

"I don't think anyone has an idea about my journey as a DJ," he says. "It's so funny, because I've seen so many people saying I'm playing pre-recorded sets, which is totally ridiculous. I was DJing before house music. I've been a DJ since I was 17, so that's 30 years ago. I can DJ with my eyes closed."

To illustrate the point, he lists a dizzying array of styles he once played and draws a distinction between his club residency roots and the new crop of fast-tracked producers.

"A lot of kids that come out of the blue now, it's like you have a hit record you produced in your bedroom and you learn how to DJ in front of 10,000 people," he says. "It's ok, I respect production a lot as well. I'm just saying when it comes to DJing, I don't think other people really understand where I'm coming from. I used to do eight-hour sets, six nights a week. I think I'm quite real when it comes to DJing."

Asked to articulate his legacy, Guetta takes a thoughtful pause.

"I want to be remembered for the good times," he says. "Every time someone comes to me and says like, 'I fell in love dancing with your songs,' or 'I met my wife in this club' or 'I played your music when I got married.' That touches me, being able to give so much happiness to people."

Guetta trails off again, but he's not finished this time.

"And then, of course, for being one of the guys that has put a brick in the big house that became our music," he says. "I think I participated in it and I'm proud of it -- of making our music so big today."